Two humanitarian activists go on trial in Athens on Thursday for providing vital aid to migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach Greece.
Sean Binder and Sarah Mardini have been charged with misdemeanors of espionage, forgery and illegal use of radio frequencies and face a maximum sentence of eight years, convertible into a fine.
They are also under investigation for serious crimes, which could face up to 25 years in jail.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has described the proceedings as “lifesavers at trial.”
Then go said in a statement that the trial on the island of Lesbos is related to “humanitarian activities that are protected by international human rights law and Greek law” and called on the authorities to “stop criminalizing humanitarian rescuers.”
They said they are on trial for their “alleged affiliations” with the search and rescue group Emergency Response Center International (ERCI) and that the charges against them misrepresent the group’s operations as a smuggling ring and its fundraising activities as money laundering.
Meanwhile, the espionage charges “are based on the police report that their efforts to identify migrant boats in distress included monitoring the Greek Coast Guard and Frontex radio channels and vessels,” HRW said. .
“However, as the police report acknowledged, the radio channels are not encrypted and can be accessed by anyone with a VHF radio. Vessel positions are posted in real time on commercial vessel tracking websites,” they added.
Binder, an Irish-German volunteer, and Mardini, a Syrian human rights worker with refugee status, were arrested and detained for more than three months in 2018. They deny all the charges against them and say they were doing nothing more than help rescue people.
HRW has asked prosecutors to request his acquittal.
Humanitarian workers and volunteers are increasingly being targeted by the Greek authorities.
Bill Van Esveld, associate director of children’s rights at HRW, said that “the misuse of the criminal justice system by the Greek authorities to harass these humanitarian rescuers appears designed to deter future rescue efforts, which will only put lives in risk”.
“The sloppy investigation and absurd charges, including espionage, against people doing life-saving work reeks of politically motivated prosecution,” he added.
However, it is not just Greece. According to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, Germany, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Spain and Greece have initiated 58 investigations and legal proceedings since 2016 against private entities involved in search and rescue.
Binder told the AP earlier this month that “it’s important to challenge them in court, not sit back and accept that we should be accused of smuggling or spies because I offered CPR, (or) most of the time just a smile, someone in danger. “
“It is absurd that we are considered criminals. I do not accept it … No matter who you are, you do not deserve to drown in the sea.”
Narrowly 1.1 million people came to Greece by sea alone between 2015 and 2018, three-quarters of which did so in 2015. Lesbos was one of the hardest-hit Greek islands and thousands of asylum seekers continue to live there in overcrowded camps.
However, thousands of people did not survive the crossing. United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that more than 17,000 people lost their lives between 2015 and 2020 trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach the member states of a European Union such as Greece, Italy, Spain, Cyprus and Malta.
Greece introduced a law in 2014 that imposed severe penalties on human traffickers: 10 years in prison for each person trafficked, or 15 years per person if there was danger of death, and life in prison if someone died. The smugglers reacted to the law by persuading or forcing their passengers to drive the boats.
Several people who attempted the crossing have also been charged and sentenced to prison terms for driving inflatable boats carrying them and other migrants after they said smugglers abandoned them in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece.
Hanad Abdi Mohammad, a 28-year-old Somali, is among them. He was recently charged as a smuggler and sentenced to 142 years in prison.
Mohammad told a small group of journalists and legislators from the European Parliament who visited him in prison last week that he had no choice but to drive the boat.
He says the smuggler forced him to take over, hit him in the face and threatened him with a gun before abandoning the boat in rough seas.
Dimitris Choulis, a lawyer from the island of Samos who frequently represents asylum seekers, criticized the law, telling the AP: “Our prisons are full of asylum seekers driving a boat.”
“This is absurd,” he concluded.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism